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Why German children receive a cardboard cone on their first day of school

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A couple of months before six-year-old Jara started school in London in 2020, her grandmother in Germany was planning a special surprise for the girl: a School cone giant, or “school cone”, a kind of cardboard cornucopia traditionally received by German children on their first day of school.

In many German families, every generation they can remember has honored this tradition. Neither the pandemic nor the practical question of how to transport a huge gift to London was going to break the chain.

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German school cones appear to be a very simple gift: a large decorated cardboard cone, filled with sweets, stationery and toys.

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But over the past two centuries, they have acquired a unique place in German culture, as a much loved and deeply symbolic present from one generation to the next, which has a powerful cultural and psychological meaning.

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German parents gave away school cones during two world wars, in the rubble of postwar cities and during the decades in which the country was divided.

In good times, cones were filled with fancy goodies; in bad times, with potatoes, or nothing. The cone itself was the gift.

For many Germans, they are the ultimate symbol of starting school and enter a new stage of life.

“For our family, starting school is not possible without a school cone,” says Jacqueline, Jara’s German mother, who works as a coach in London. “I can’t imagine without one, it’s a way to sweeten the first day of school.”

In his home region of Saxony, the cone is presented as part of a grand celebration, with a ceremony at school and a party at home. It’s something I miss in the UK: “Here, the first day of school is only the first day of school.”

Bettina Nestler, whose family owns Nestler Feinkartonagen, Germany’s largest maker of school cones, describes these school entrance festivities “like a little wedding.”

In Saxony, where the Nestler company is based, the cones are especially lush and planned up to a year in advance.

The cone itself, known in some regions as Sugar bag (“sugar cone”), it is ordered even in January, to start classes in September.

Origin

It is believed that Saxony, in eastern Germany, It is where the custom of giving cones began.

In one of the first references to the tradition, the son of a shepherd in Saxony remembers that his teacher gave him “a sugar cone” on his first day at school in 1781.

In those days, cones were simple, little paper bags, filled with raisins or other nuts.

Today they can be up to 85cm long and feature images of cars, unicorns or astronauts, along with flashing LED lights and even buttons that produce neigh or roar when pressed.

German children with cardboard cones. (GETTY IMAGES).

But whether it’s a bag of raisins or a modern super icon, the essential meaning remains the same.

“The school cone is a traditional rite of passage”says Christiane Cantauw, historian and folklore expert at the Commission for Research on Everyday Culture in Westphalia, western Germany. “The child is leaving the early years behind and entering school, and this fact is taken very seriously in Germany. And tradition makes it clear.”

In addition, the cone marks a new special bond: “Through the transition to school, the child moves away from the family unit a bit,” says Cantauw. “And with the custom of giving cones, the family creates a reconnection and transmits that ‘yes, now you are a school-age child, but you are still part of our family. We support and accompany you on this new path, as we did before’ “.

For some the memory of that special bond lasts a lifetime.

Hans-Günter Löwe, a retired professor in Hamburg, grew up in the ruins of post-war Germany. A photo taken on his first day at school in 1949 reveals a strenuous effort by his family to present something akin to normalcy.

“I’m holding a homemade school cone decorated with shiny aluminum foil. Somehow my mother managed to make one“he says.” She must have done it while I was sleeping. “

Löwe has collected dozens of old school cones, which are now in a museum, as well as photographs documenting the tradition. In addition, he has written a book on the history of this custom.

The

The German “school cones” reflect how parenthood has changed. In the 1950s, when the postwar economy recovered, it became fashionable to buy rather than make a cone. (GETTY IMAGES).

Then like now Starting school can inspire feelings of anxiety in children. According to research on early childhood transitions, the rituals they can help you face and experience the moment of change as something positive.

When managed well, such transitions can be “key turning points in children’s lives” and “provide challenges and opportunities for learning and growth on multiple levels,” the research authors argue.

In Germany, cones tend to evoke powerful feelings of nostalgia in adults. But as Löwe’s book documents, they have also reflected the country’s tumultuous and violent history.

In a photo taken during World War I, a girl holds a school cone in one hand and a pomegranate model in the other.

Children sent photos of themselves with their school cones to their parents on the battlefield. In the Nazi era, some cones featured swastikas.

After World War II, when Germany was divided into the German Democratic Republic (the socialist East) and the Federal Republic (the capitalist West), a new schism emerged.

In West Germany, the cones were round and in the East, more angular. Decades after reunification, those differences remain, along with other subtle distinctions between the East and West German cones.

For the Bettina Nestler family, the cones and their East-West history have a particularly deep meaning, one that is intertwined with memories of loss and resistance. “What the school cone means to us is a very emotional question,” sighs Nestler, whose grandfather founded the company in 1953.

He grew up next to the factory, amid the smell of glue. She is proud to have followed her ancestors in the business: “We are part of a very special stage of a person’s life. The beginning of school is a very important step.”

The Einschulung, Mädchen and Junge mit Schultüten children with their cones, in the 1960s (GETTY IMAGES).

The Einschulung, Mädchen and Junge mit Schultüten children with their cones, in the 1960s (GETTY IMAGES).

Today, his firm attends to a new trend: individualism. Parents can order custom cones printed with their child’s name, or even request a unique model based on a personal design.

Cantauw, the folklore expert, explains that the design of the cones reflects the economic fortune of Germany and also German ideas about good parenting.

In the 1950s, as the economy recovered from the bitter postwar years, “It was a matter of showing that you could buy a nice cone, with glossy paper, etc. “, says Cantauw.

But now, for parents who grew up in the relative prosperity of the 1980s and who have successful careers, “the gift is time.” Specifically, the time spent making a school cone: “Parents show the child that they are investing time,” he says.

In 2016, The mirror, a German news magazine, condemned “insanity on the first day of school”, arguing that parents were under a “new kind of performance pressure “ to create the perfect cone, which it was considered as a “barometer of love”.

German children with cardboard cones.  (GETTY IMAGES).

German children with cardboard cones. (GETTY IMAGES).

However, in times of crisis, this kind of homemade cone-making can turn into a super power.

Manuela Schmidt, a therapist from the city of Wachtberg, lives near the part of western Germany that was devastated by floods this summer. When he heard that some children had lost their school cones in the floods, volunteered to manufacture replacements with a group of volunteers. Dozens of families contacted her.

The handmade cones, decorated with unicorns, firemen and planets, offered a sense of hope. “It showed the children and their families that there was going to be a tomorrow, that life was going to go on, even after this catastrophe,” says Schmidt.

Schmidt’s niece, Lillian, age eight, proudly displays hers in a video call: sky blue, with a rainbow, a tree, a moon and stars. He has kept it as a souvenir. “It’s a memory of my first day of school, which was really special,” he says.

As for Jara, the London schoolgirl, her cone sent from Germany was everything she had hoped for. It was almost as big as Jara herself.

“I was so happy that I even took him to sleep with me.”said the girl.

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